Patricia Hill Collins: Space, Identity, Intersectionality

Patricia Hill Collins blew me away the first time I read her in any depth, and continues to do so every time I return. She is someone who helps me get through every time I despair of academic and intellectual endeavours, and On Intellectual Activism is full of both inspiration and knowledge, spanning he wide range of her work and thought.

A book to treasure. Especially given we face the inauguration of Donald Trump. It still seems unreal.

I’ve been working through some of the main ideas that jumped out at me this time around, some felt new and others, like intersectionality, felt solidified. In introducing the collection of essays and extracts, Collins writes:

Two main ideas are at work here, both of which focus on social structural sources of power….developed throughout my scholarship, I have used the thesis of intersectionality and the idea of the matrix of domination as interrelated constructs to describe social structures of domination. Intersectional thinking suggests that race, class, gender, nation, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and other forms of social hierarchy structure one another. My goal has been to conceptualize intersectionality and study its manifestations in a matrix of domination from one social setting to the next. (xvi)

I am working on organising my thoughts a little more on how this structuring takes place, how this conceptualisation sits alongside and works together with Stuart Hall’s ideas of articulation. So that will come later. Today just a collection of thoughts really. While these notes are from a very long time ago, I started giving them some kind of structure on Martin Luther King Jr day, so it was nice to come across this — a good place to start in thinking about Collins and her contributions to struggle because it starts with a goal and a vision — Martin Luther King Jr’s Beloved Community ():

The idea of Beloved Community envisions a public space that is heterogeneous and participatory, and where we each see how we are responsible for bringing it about. (145, from ‘Making Space for Public Conversations: An Interview, 2011)

she further writes:

I envision the Beloved Community as a social group that embraces all of its members. Yet, within the space of Beloved Community, with its ethos of social justice, there is also space for disagreement. People seem to assume that communities are happy places where no one disagrees. But to construct a vision of Beloved Community, there must be conflict and dialogue, and not running away from the conflict that might come from dialogue across differences. Communities negotiate power relations across differences. What makes a community a “beloved” community is that people within it are committed to working through these differences in power in ways that make communities fair for everyone. (148)

This kind of sums up in a most beautiful way what she is trying to accomplish — to not shy away from disagreement, from hard truths as we see them, but to communicate them respectfully. To explore them. To find strength in differences. To fix what is broken. And so much is broken, not least how we often conduct our justice struggles. Collins reflects:

Many of the themes in Black Feminist Thought reflect my sustained effort to reconcile my independent view of the world with my devalued place in it. (8, from ‘Why Black Feminist Thought’ presented 1990-93)

This helps explain why King, much as I love him, is the civil rights figure celebrated with a public holiday and to whom many not down with the struggle will point, rather than Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Jo Ann Robinson or Rosa Parks in her role as secretary of the NAACP and the many others working for justice. Why feminism has been so important, why the LGBTQI struggle has been so important — and Patricia Hill Collins has been central in thinking how to create a politics that works against all aspects of oppression rather than just one. I love her critical thinking on the differences between collective and individual “identity politics”:

the Collective advanced a powerful theory of action, one grounded in analysis and experience with “identity politics” as the phrase that captures these complex relationships. In contrast, contemporary approaches to identity politics rely on an individualist notion of identity: identity as freedom from social constructions, no matter the power relations. (54, from ‘Still Brave? Black Feminism as a Social Justice Project’)

The erasure of an understanding of power here is key to the problem:

Social structures of intersecting systems of power disappear, to be replaced with by an endlessly changing flow of individuals, each trying to understand him- or herself. (68, from ‘Learning from the Outsider Within Revisited’)

The erasure of the collective is as problematic as well, like Freire, Horton and Baker, Collins sees work and theory as needing to be collectively created through struggle. The goal for her?

Black girls would not be consumers of Black feminism–instead they would create it (66).

This creation is central to a liberatory practice, because it matters where you stand, as she writes:

…the social location of being on the edge mattered. (66)

Taken all together, we have to understand power and identity in new ways:

I don’t see racism as a cardboard, one-dimensional filter…Instead, I see racism as an ever-changing system of power relations that works with and through gender, class, sexuality, age, ethnicity, citizenship, and other similarly structured systems of power. (178, from ‘Are We Living in a Post-Racial World?’)

Working on segregation and privatisation as I do, this viewpoint brings valuable insights into both:

The logic of segregation says: Separate people into boxes (e.g., categories of race, gender, class, and sexuality), keep the boxes separate from each other, and rank each box’s worth. Racial segregation is the most visible, yet it is only the tip of the iceberg. The logic of segregation affects all aspects of U.S. society and global politics that carve up the world’s people into nation-states. The whole notion of borders, boundaries, and segregation has been a very important cognitive frame for American perceptions of its peoples and the world. (33, from ‘Black Sexual Politics 101’)

This remains, despite the new rhetoric of colourblindness, their new geographic codes:

One distinguishing feature of the new racism is how it continues to rely on a logic of segregation that remains powerful yet masks its own operation. … not the stark either/or kind of the past…but a more genteelĀ  version coded through euphemisms of “good” and “bad” neighborhoods…(34)

Their new social codes:

overt racial language is replaced by covert racial euphamisms that reference the same phenomena–talk of “niggers” and “ghettos” becomes replaced by phrases such as “urban,” “welfare mothers,” and “street crime.” Everyone knows what these terms mean, and if they don’t, they quickly figure it out. (35)

It is also described, justified, sanctified in terms of family values:

Family values are everywhere, motivating behaviors concerning race, class, and national priorities. For example, whites are told that the decision to move into a white neighborhood is not about upholding racism, but rather constitutes a personal choice to protect the interests of their children and provide them with a “good” education. (202)

She makes the connection between privatization and race, looking at academies and the white flight from public schools as changing other institutions as well so that

…the public sphere becomes a curiously confined, yet visible location that increases the value of private services and privacy itself. Public places become devalued spaces containing Latinos, poor people, African Americans, the homeless, and anyone else who cannot afford to escape. In this context, privacy signals safety; control over one’s home, family and community space; and racial homogeneity–all qualities that can be purchased if one can afford it. This version of privatization dovetails with Guinier and Torres’ notion of the privatization of power. If private spaces are better, then shouldn’t private entities run the public itself? (83, from ‘Going Public: Doing the Sociology That Had No Name’)

And of course, she ties it all back in to our history, to a global context

I see segregation as a metaphor for a broader set of social relations stemming from colonialism and nationalism. These political systems required drawing strict boundaries to determine citizenship, status, and the benefits and costs of belonging. Historically, sociology was uncomfortable with itself because it was a border discipline during a period of separation where, to know who you were, you had to pick a side…(108, from ‘Rethinking Knowledge, Community and Empowerment’)

These were just a few of the highlights of her wisdom around what we face, I’m still working through more on intersectionality and power, theorisations of violence, and the role of the intellectual…

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